TLDR: I think I always act to maximize my happiness in the present. I believe I make “long-term decisions” because I get immediate happiness from the thought that I’m going to do something that will lead me to be happy in the future. 

I think that all my desires reduce to a desire to be happy. For example, I want money to buy stuff and to feel financially secure. If I buy things I want and I worry less about my finances, I’ll feel happier.[1] 

I could give a similar example about anything. I want to eat lunch soon because not being hungry makes me happy. I don’t want to live in North Korea because having freedom of speech and using the internet makes me happy. The point is that I don’t want anything besides my own happiness for the sake of it.

That doesn’t mean I don’t care about other people. That means I don’t take any 100% altruistic action.[2] For example, I would donate money to charity to make other people happy, which would make me happy. 

I want to be as happy as possible. If I can eat lunch and not live in North Korea, I’ll do both. 

Procrastination

I also think I always act to maximize my happiness in the present.

I used to say that I wanted “long-term happiness.” I meant that I wanted to maximize my total happiness over the course of my entire life. But I think I was lying to myself when I said that. I at least didn’t always feel that way. If so, I would’ve been able to never procrastinate. 

If I want to be happy right now, I literally want short-term happiness. But I wouldn't tell someone I want "short-term happiness." If I heard that someone only thinks “short-term,” I’d imagine someone who doesn’t plan in advance.

I’m fickle. Sometimes working maximizes my happiness. It can feel good to believe I’m being productive. Other times relaxing maximizes my happiness. Procrastinating makes me happiest when I don’t want to work, but I feel like I should be working.

Sometimes I can’t get myself to feel happy. For example, I may not feel happy as I procrastinate. I maximize my happiness while procrastinating by telling myself, “I’ll still get this work done on time” or “It doesn’t matter if I miss this deadline.”

Experience Machine

Even when I’m feeling energized and motivated enough to work, I don’t think I want long-term happiness. The experience machine thought experiment inspired this theory.

I don’t know the exact details of the original thought experiment. I imagine the experience machine as a combo of the perfect drug and video game. It would make me infinitely happy and give me immortality. I’d enjoy the machine so much that I’d never leave, and the machine would never break.

Let’s imagine I somehow had the chance to enter the machine. If I only cared about my long-term happiness, the choice would be easy. I’d choose to use the machine and have eternal bliss. 

However, I wouldn’t make that decision based on my long-term happiness. I’d think about the people that care about me. They’d be sad that I disappeared. I’d think about all the sentient beings suffering right now and everyone who could suffer in the future.

I don’t believe I’ll be the next Stanislav Petrov or Norman Borlaug. But I want to believe I’m on the path to doing the best I can to help others. Having that feeling maximizes my present happiness.

So I think I’d resist the temptation to enter the machine right now. But if I was in a bad mood, I’d enter it.

Conclusion

I tell myself I want “long-term short-term” happiness. I don’t think there’s anything special about this term. That phrasing helps me. It reminds me that I have an entire life where I’ll try to be as happy as I can in each moment. Many people may interpret “long-term happiness” the same way. But I’d taken it literally.

(cross-posted from my blog: https://utilitymonster.substack.com/p/long-term-short-term-happiness)

  1. ^

     I’m defining happiness as a positive emotional state (i.e., a good feeling).

  2. ^

    As I explain in this post, I think it’s reasonable to misinterpret what I mean by the word action.

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I also used to think that everything I did fundamentally reduced to a desire for a positive emotional state, however, after a few years of hardcore meditation practice I was convincingly disabused of that notion. There is a state you can train yourself to enter called the Second Jhana (the second in a sequence of four[1] distinct states), this state could be described as pure emotional happiness without any reason for the happiness to occur. You can prolong the state as long as you want, and you can make it more intense than almost any experience of happiness you'd get in daily life. Imagine capturing the moment in time after you opened the present you desperately wanted on Christmas morning when you were 8 years old, that's what the second Jhana done correctly feels like, extended for as long as you want. Seems appealing, doesn't it? And it is, it's extremely pleasant. 

However, something weird happens when you feel in your bones that you have happiness on-demand. When you have entered this state so often that no doubt can remain in you of your ability to be happy at the drop of a hat, you realize that something is still missing. You've stopped craving happiness, since you now have it on-demand, yet emotional happiness was not, in fact, what you actually wanted. Not only that, but your "emotional palate" starts to change, so to speak. The third Jhana is "pure satisfaction" instead of the "pure happiness" of the second, and over time you start to find happiness to be too gross of a state, too unrefined, too intense, and you start to prefer the satisfaction of the third Jhana to the happiness of the second. Yet this too is considered unrefined after a while, and you settle into the fourth Jhana, which is "Calm Neutrality". There is no happiness there, nor satisfaction, just a purely neutral emotional state filled with lots of calm, and this you somehow immensely prefer to the happiness of the Second Jhana. This preference would have been unthinkable before you started these practices, just like a child might not understand why anyone would prefer an expensive steak to a pound of chocolate. 

In the end even the fourth Jhana cannot truly Satisfy. Even after you have all the happiness, contentment and calm in the world, you still feel something missing from your life, mere emotional happiness cannot possibly be fundamental in the way that you think it is.

  1. ^

    Sometimes the list includes 4 additional states after the fourth Jhana, but those are something a bit different, it's a new sequence of states that used the fourth Jhana as a jumping board, but they don't naturally cluster together with the first four jhanas.

I think there are times I’d prefer calmness to what you describe as happiness or satisfaction. But the calm gives me a positive emotional state. 

Granted, I’ve barely meditated. Maybe you’re using calmness to refer to a feeling that I can’t relate to.